It underlined the US commitment to stay engaged in the Indo-Pacific region

Last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken paid his first visit to India. After Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin and Special Envoy for Climate Change John Kerry, Blinken is the third senior US policymaker to visit India. The visit by any senior US policymaker naturally attains a lot of media attention, and this visit was no different. During the visit, Blinken met India's External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar, National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, and called on Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

It's been six months since the Biden administration has taken charge, and the visit marked the importance attached to India in the US strategy in the Indo-Pacific. The visit was also significant because of the emerging situation in Afghanistan and India's security concerns in the region. Other important issues to figure in the discussions included the security and stability in the Persian Gulf, the situation in Myanmar, multilateral institutions, the importance of upholding democratic values, climate change, and renewable energy.

Message To China

In the context of the challenge of China in the Indo-Pacific, the optics of the visit were significant. Blinken held discussions with civil society representatives, including the delegate representing the Tibetan government in exile. The move was a calculated step to send a message to China. Also, the meeting, happening in the wake of the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Tibet, assumes broader strategic significance.

Amid the increasing appeal of authoritarianism, shared values remain a firm binding factor for the Indo-US ties. Blinken said, "We view Indian democracy as a force for good in defence of a free and open Indo-Pacific." Blinken's observations on rising challenges to democracies were addressed towards China. Expectedly, it provoked an angry response from Beijing.

The references to the importance of observing international law, rules and norms, including the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), were also directed towards China and its belligerent behaviour in the South China Sea. Thus, China remained a critical underlying factor dominating the discussions.

Importance of The Quad

India and the US, along with Japan and Australia, are part of the Quad initiative. During the visit, the Quad featured prominently as both sides see considerable stakes in strengthening the cooperation under the aegis of the Quad. The wide-ranging agenda and the necessity of the Quad as a stabilizing factor in the Indo-Pacific security were apparent in discussions and press briefings.

Jaishankar noted in the press briefing after the meeting that, in the framework of Quad, "We are engaged on maritime security, HADR [Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Relief], counterterrorism, connectivity and infrastructure, cyber and digital concerns, Covid-19 response, climate action, education and resilient and reliable supply chains.'

Beijing deliberately projects the Quad as a military alliance positioned to constrain it in the Indo-Pacific. Blinken categorically denied that Quad is a military alliance and clarified that its purpose is to "advance cooperation, on regional challenges, while reinforcing international rules and values that we believe together underpin peace, prosperity and stability in the region." The Quad vaccine initiative is an excellent example of it. More such initiatives under the Quad framework would certainly help to challenge Beijing's claims.

Situation In Afghanistan

The situation in Afghanistan is another crucial area discussed in the visit. The US withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and the growing power of the Taliban has a direct bearing on India's security. It was stated that India and the US are "committed to the proposition that there is no military solution to the conflict that afflicts Afghanistan." In fact, "there has to be a peaceful resolution, which requires the Taliban and the Afghan government to come to the table."

Blinken stressed that "any future government in Afghanistan has to be inclusive and fully representative of the Afghan people." He assured that the US would "remain very much engaged in Afghanistan. We have not only a strong embassy there but also important programmes that continue to support Afghanistan, economically through development assistance through security assistance."

The visit would have been helpful as both sides shared their concerns and understanding of Afghanistan's evolving situation. However, the situation remains fluid and uncertain, and it is not yet clear how exactly India and the US would work together in Afghanistan to secure their interests.

Russia And S-400 Air Defence System

Owing to the fraught relationship between the US and Russia, India has to do the difficult balancing act, which is most visibly seen in the S-400 deal as there is a looming threat of sanctions under US law.

On India's purchase of S-400 air defence systems from Russia, Blinken said the US has shared its concerns with India on this. Beyond that, he refused to provide any concrete indication about the likely course of action. The answer by Blinken points towards the problems faced by the US in finding the right balance between its domestic legislations and foreign and strategic policy priorities. It would be interesting to see how India and the US navigate this complex problem.

Overall, the visit laid the groundwork for a more productive phase in the Indo-US relations under the Biden administration. It coincided with the US Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin's important visit to Southeast Asia. The two, taken together, underlined the US commitment to stay engaged in the Indo-Pacific region and ensure the region's stability and security.